Every October, beer lovers around the globe grab their growlers and tip their hats to Germany’s world class offerings. What’s a devoted oenophile to do? Celebrate Germany’s stellar wine selections, of course! How does one do that? Aside from simply enjoying the vino, demystifying Deutschland’s distinct wine classification system is a good start.
Wine classification systems are created on the national level and since there is no worldwide regulatory body standardizing or policing how this is done, they vary widely from country to country. Old World wine powerhouses such as France and Italy have very stringent regulations governing which grape varietals can be grown and what production processes can be used in a given location. Conversely, New World wine kingpins such as the USA and Australia are mainly concerned with enforcing only that a wine is properly labeled with the place where the grapes were grown. Additionally, a myriad of other wine producing countries adhere to countless variations overlapping these two ideologies.
In Germany, environmental conditions are harsh and not ideally suited for growing grapes, meaning wine makers must labor assiduously to produce their wines. The cold, frost-prone climate makes it extremely difficult for grapes to ripen and develop sufficient sugar content. This makes ripeness, or sugar content, a main factor in determining grape quality and, therefore, plays a major role in the German wine classification system. To that end, Germany’s wines are sorted and graded based on geographic location and the degree of ripeness of the grapes at harvest.
Grape ripeness is critical to the process of making wine. Grapes are crushed resulting in juice with a high sugar content. Yeast is added to the juice where it consumes the sugar. As it consumes the sugar, it creates alcohol as a byproduct. If there is not enough sugar, the percent of alcohol in the wine will be low, so a vintner may need to add table sugar to increase the alcohol content. This process is called chaptalization and is allowed only in the lower quality levels of Germany’s wine level designations.
There are three main categories in the German wine classification system: Wein, Geschützte Geographische Angabe (GGA) and Geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (GU). Wein consists of basic table wine in which the grapes can be from any location and chaptalization is allowed. Wines included in GGA must have at least 85% of the grapes grown in one of Germany’s major wine regions and chaptalization is allowed. GU is subdivided into two categories: Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. Wines in the Qualitätswein subcategory must come from one of thirteen specified wine growing regions and have approved grape varieties that meet a minimum sufficient ripeness. Despite this, chaptalization is still allowed at this level. Prädikatswein has the same requirements as Qualitätswein, but chaptalization is not allowed. The wines that make it to the Prädikatswein category are further ranked by grape ripeness: Kabinett wines are light with only 7-10% alcohol, Spätlese wines feature more intense flavors as they are harvested after a specified date, Auslese wines have a required sugar level before harvest so their alcohol content can reach 14% or more, Beerenauslese (BA) wines are sweet dessert wines, Eiswein wines are made from grapes harvested after freezing on the vine, so much of the water in the grapes is discarded as ice, leaving a very high sugar content, and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) wines are some of the world’s most renowned dessert wines derived from grapes left on the vines until they have shriveled into raisins. Although the highest categories of quality are reserved for sweet wines, Germany does boast excellent dry wines and there is a vast amount of diversity in flavor profiles amongst the country’s selections.
So, don’t be intimidated by the lengthy monikers. Head down the German aisle on your next trip to the wine shop and pick up a delicious selection to ‘cheers’ with your friends at an Oenophile’s Oktoberfest!
By: MaryJane Baker Vu